The kiss lingered on Delia’s lips. She curled her fingers around her blanket, longing to return to the dream where the woman with green eyes murmured in her ear. The words faded. The dream dissolved. Delia trembled. Heat coursed through her veins. Her limbs tingled. She turned with a slow, languorous movement, imagining the green-eyed woman lying beside her.
“Del!” Her mother’s voice spoiled any chance of re-entering the dream. “The sun is up and you aren’t.”
Delia thrust away her ragged blue blanket. The heat from her dream evaporated, and she shivered in the frigid air.
“Coming,” she called. She reached for her clothes.
The main room of the cottage was warmer than Delia’s tiny alcove. She pushed aside the curtain and joined her mother at the central hearth. The odor of last night’s pottage lingered.
Before she could hang the kettle over the fire, Marthe said, “Another message came. At first light.” She drew it from her pocket and handed it to Delia.
Delia tucked the sealed sheet of vellum into the pocket of her apron and positioned the kettle on the pot hanger.
“It’s from the duke. Why don’t you read it?”
“Have you heard from Rob?” Delia joined Marthe at the rough-hewn table where her mother stood kneading dough. Her older brother had sent a message the week before announcing his first visit home since joining the king’s service.
“He’ll get here when he can.”
Delia crossed the room to the single tiny window. Beyond the road that led toward the village, the forest beckoned. Spring had come and melted most of the snow.
“What about the duke?” Marthe said. “He wants to meet you. He lost his wife at harvest time.”
“The duke had four wives, Mother. Why would I want to be the fifth?”
Before Marthe could answer, Delia’s father entered with an armload of kindling. “Because he can take care of you,” Luc said. “Those rumors of foul play come from ones not chosen, I’d wager. You need a husband, girl. Since Rob left, we can’t earn any extra. It’s all I can do to tend the goats and crops.”
Luc was a good man, kind and honest, but age and work had worn him out, and the accident with the plow had left him with a limp. At nineteen, Delia was overdue for marriage, but no suitor compared with the woman who danced through her dream world. Whenever she refused a hog farmer or apprentice blacksmith, Marthe huffed and said she was too particular. Months had passed since the last hopeful swain approached the cottage.
“I could seek a position in town,” Delia said. “A tutor or chambermaid.” Her heart chilled at the thought of spoiled children and endless chores in someone else’s house, but she had to help out, or find a husband.
The woman who roamed her dreams appeared before her eyes, but Delia shook her head. A dream didn’t put food on the table, but, oh, to be trapped inside a manor house! No more walks through the wood to forage for wild cherries and walnuts. No conversations with the sparrows that landed on her shoulder. No daydreaming by her favorite stream.
“You would find suitors in town,” Marthe said. “Even from the gentry, maybe, but don’t wait too long, love, or you’ll lose your chance for a home and children. You want children, don’t you?” Marthe’s life revolved around Luc and her children, but Delia wasn’t sure. The mysterious woman who roamed her dreams was calling her, but for what? And from where?
The next morning, Rob burst into the cottage like a wind from a distant land. Delia left the goat half-milked and ran to greet him. She flung open the door as her older brother was embracing Marthe. In his long traveling cloak, he looked taller, older and more worldly.
“Sister! I’ve missed you!” Rob grabbed Delia’s waist and lifted her as he had when they were children. “And even more lovely.” He set her down and pulled her against his chest.
Delia hugged him hard. “Tell us everything. The castle. The king. Are you still an archer?”
Rob patted the long-handled knife hanging from his belt. “I’ve been promoted. My captain put me in charge of teaching recruits how to shoot an arrow straight. When he found out I could ride, he talked of adding me to the cavalry. I’ve waited months, and now it’s come. I return as a junior member of the Royal Cavalry.”
Marthe laughed. “And we thought the hours wasted that you spent on the neighbor’s horse. I’m proud of you, son.”
Rob hugged them both. “I’ll tell you everything. But first, your news.”
Marthe picked up a stack of plates. “Come, sit. There’s tea and bread, and the soup’s simmering. The real news is for Delia. The duke wants to meet her, but your sister isn’t sure the duke of our land would make a suitable husband.”
“Delia!” Rob said “The duke? Why does he come here? He’s had other wives, hasn’t he?”
“Several,” Delia said. “He’s an odd one. He drops in on people unexpectedly, and not only nobles. We were fortunate to get a message about his arrival.”
“Which is?” Rob asked.
“Tomorrow,” Delia said.
Her brother looked serious. “Do you fear him, Delia?”
Since the message arrived, Delia had thought of little else. “No,” she said. “I don’t.”
In her dream, the green-eyed woman stretched beside Delia on grass warmed by a gentle sun. Her voice flowed like a song, her hands caressed Delia’s cheek so gently Delia felt only the tingling of currents aroused within her as she raised her face for a kiss. As their lips met, tendrils of warmth traveled through her arms. Her fingers curled.
“I know you,” Delia said.
Deep, heavy-lidded eyes beheld her. “You have always known me. Let my kisses awaken your memories.”
Such pleasure moved through her when they were together that Delia found herself floating near the tops of tall trees with lacy green leaves tickling her face.
She opened her eyes. The grimy smudge on the wall of her room mocked her. The lumpy straw mattress pricked her back. She wept bitter tears.
“Are you ready?” Marthe bustled around the table, arranging her best cloth on the rough wood.
Delia smoothed the skirt of her best dress and pulled tight the blue shawl that Marthe had finished crocheting for the occasion. She had curled her dark red hair into ringlets, crowned with pins adorned with delicate blue ribbons.
“Look and see if he’s coming,” Marthe said.
Luc sent Rob into town with instructions not to return until supper. “Your sister must make up her own mind,” he said. “I’m here to protect her.”
Not that Delia needed protecting, but rumors of the duke’s outrageous acts had spread and visiting the cottage of one of his sharecroppers was nearly beyond the bounds of propriety. She was relieved when Rob left at dawn with a goat that Luc insisted he trade in the market for flour and sugar.
She peered out the window. The duke must be old and wrinkled. She stood there until a cloud of dust appeared in the distance. “He’s coming.”
Marthe wiped her hands. “Come, sit.” She pushed her daughter into one of the three chairs at the table. “Rise when he comes in and curtsy like I showed you.”
“I know what to do.”
The coach was large and ornate, with curtained windows and a box for the coachman. As he pulled them to a stop, two black horses snorted and stamped their hooves. The coachman leaped from his box and opened the door.
“Take your nose off the window,” Marthe snapped. “Sit quietly like a lady.” She and Luc opened the door.
The duke stepped from the carriage, dressed in black, wearing high leather boots, a frilled white shirt and a gold belt with a buckle depicting his coat-of-arms, a serpent devouring its tail. As he strode to the door, a velveteen cloak swirled in the breeze, revealing a carved leather scabbard. From it rose an elaborate silver hilt.
He bowed to Marthe and Luc and entered the cottage, blinking in the sudden darkness.
Now we’ll see what he wants, Delia thought as she performed the deep curtsy reserved for greeting nobility.
“My Lady.” The duke approached Delia. He kissed her proffered right hand.
“My Lord.” She lowered her gaze. “Your presence honors our poor house.”
Not so old after all, he was pale and quietly handsome with close-set eyes a deep shade of blue and dark hair brushing his shoulders. From the number of times he licked his thin lips, Delia judged she was not the only one with a case of nerves. As he settled in a chair beside her, her heart softened. If not for the problem of his missing wives, he might make an acceptable husband.
“Word of your beauty reached me in my lonely castle,” he said. “I had to see what treasure languished at the edge of my wood.”
“You are too kind,” Delia said.
Marthe served them tea and slices of bread with honey, then backed away as if she were a servant. Luc retreated to the darkest corner where he melted into the shadows.
“I have been most unfortunate in matters of the heart,” the duke said. “My wives met with adversity, stolen from me by accident and disease. My last wife succumbed to a flux in her chest. I loved her dearly and mourn her still, but my home is a large one and requires a mistress. Now that I have met you, I see I have come to the right place.” Tears glistened in his eyes.
Surely a man who wept over his dead wife would not treat her ill. “I am sorry for your loss, my duke.” She allowed him to rest his cool hand on her wrist.
He bent toward her ear and whispered, “Call me Maltric.”
You have done well, the dream-woman murmured as she caressed Delia’s loose curls and twined her fingers into her hair. The fingers kneaded, pressing away the tension. Delia tossed her hair to one side, opening herself to the rising tide. The fingers ventured into the crevices between the bones of her back. Delia’s breath came in gasps.
Find the blue door, the woman whispered. In the castle.
Rob walked in the wood with Delia, along narrow paths they had roamed as children. They stopped to rest at a familiar rock where Delia sat and watched her handsome brother pace back and forth in a clearing.
“Will you marry him?” he asked.
“I must do something. Either marry or find a position. Our parents are old, and I am no longer a child. As his wife, I could make their lives easier.”
He scowled. “I can help more now. The Royal Cavalry pays in coin.”
She touched his face. “You have your life. I must make mine.”
“Sister, I am wary of this duke.”
Rob had always been her protector, but now she must make her own decision. “I will put him off,” she said, “until I am certain.” I sense no menace in him, she thought. It is possible his wives were unlucky, or had poor constitutions.”
Rob kissed her forehead. “Well, no one can say that of you. I trust your judgment, but if you need help, send a message. Just because I am far away, I have not deserted you, my sister.”
Delia rested in the comfort of his arms. She didn’t tell him of her dream-woman or the blue door. When they resumed their walk, they spoke only of their childhood when neither of them had worries beyond returning to the cottage by suppertime.
The duke called for Delia every week. They drove through the countryside in his coach, conversing about the weather, the crops, and the rumored entertainments the king and queen enjoyed at the castle in the north. Delia was uncertain how to interpret these outings, but their frequency convinced her she made a good impression.
When first they journeyed to the duke’s castle, the countryside bloomed with color. Apple trees sprouted delicate pink blossoms. Violets and daisies covered the hills. On a bright afternoon that Delia would have preferred to spend wandering the forest, the carriage turned off the main road onto a narrow track and entered the deep wood.
Little sun penetrated the tall dark-barked trees growing thick as a maze on both sides of the track. They drove for more than an hour in gloom that made Delia’s chest tighten. When the trees opened to reveal the castle sitting in a clearing against the backdrop of a hill, blessed sunlight shone and Delia brightened, but as they approached the massive building, the heaviness penetrated her. High, square towers flanked forbidding stone walls broken only by small, square windows. The horses trotted up a curving drive and stopped before a massive wooden door.
“Here we are,” Maltric said.
She had never felt so frightened or so pampered as he unwrapped the blanket from her legs and helped her out of the carriage as if she were a fragile thing.
The castle door loomed thick and dark, old wood carved with the duke’s crest, a circular brass handle in its center. A servant, costumed in black and white livery finer than any she had seen, opened the door and ushered them into a foyer larger than her parents’ cottage. The servant took her cape and bowed as he retreated.
Delia followed the duke into a room so long and high ceilinged Delia thought of a cathedral in the distant city she had once visited with Marthe and Luc. Heavy wooden furniture circled a stone fireplace that rose to the ceiling. Above the fireplace hung a pair of crossed steel swords, with hilts trimmed in gold and studded with precious stones. Thick red drapes covered narrow windows and blocked the light.
Delia sat on a carved oak loveseat with a velvet cushion. The duke sat opposite her. He waved his hand for a maid who hurried toward them with a silver tray bearing serving dishes with covered lids and two pewter goblets of mulled cider. She placed the tray on a table to the side and offered Delia a goblet. Delia sipped the spicy beverage. “You have a lovely home.”
“It has been in my family for generations.” He offered her a silver plate of pastries. Delia chose a delicate almond concoction and nibbled it as she glanced around. The blue door must be here, but with so many rooms, how could she find it? Her gaze returned to the glittering swords.
“Those were my grandfather’s,” Maltric said.
“You are a swordsman?” Delia inquired.
“Oh, yes. A family tradition. As peaceful as our land has been of late, I seldom need a sword, but I like to practice. My falconer consents to a friendly match now and then, so we can both keep our skills. But I prefer to learn about you, dear Delia.”
Delia looked at her lap. “You do me great honor, my Lord.”
He rose and held out both hands. “I have so enjoyed our time together these last weeks. You have seen my home, and now I hope you will accept my humble plea to be your husband.”
It had come. Delia rose and placed her hands in his. As he grasped her fingers, she felt no fear, only concern fitting into the life of a noble lady. She smiled at Maltric. “I will, my Lord.”
He pulled her so close her face rested on his soft white shirt. “You are so lovely, and you do me great honor with your consent. I’m certain we will be happy.” His arms pressed against her back with a proprietary air. Delia tried not to notice the tremor that shivered through her shoulders.
I’m coming, she thought to the green-eyed woman, even as the duke kissed her forehead with his cool lips. She smiled at him. “I will need your help to manage such a household. I fear I am ill-prepared for such responsibility.”
He laughed and squeezed her tighter. “My dear, the staff knows what to do. You need only direct them. We can plan for a summer wedding. Will that be enough time?”
The sooner they married, the sooner she could find the mysterious blue door. “Yes, my Lord, summer will do nicely.”
Delia awoke in her new bedroom that Maltric had ordered decorated in her favorite blue pastels. She stretched luxuriously. Her dream world lingered as a haze in her mind, and her body sang with the memory of the green-eyed woman.
Delia tried to re-enter the dream, but it faded. She turned on her side and thought of Maltric. His initial attempts to arouse her passion had failed. His hands were too large, his breath sour, his movements awkward. Still, he enjoyed their coupling, and hinted about children, so Delia concealed the fact that her cries of passion were not entirely heart-felt.
He held her close until he slept, freeing her to retreat to her side of the large bed. He was not insensitive, though, and soon learned her preferences. In their last encounter, she had found pleasure in his touch. Delia smiled. She didn’t mind that he was often away to attend to the affairs of his realm. When he shared her bed, she didn’t dream of the green-eyed woman.
She sat up and rang a tiny bell on her bedside table. A maid entered with a tray of hot tea and buttered toast, her usual breakfast.
“Thank you,” she said as Cerise settled the tray beside her.
Cerise curtsied. “Is there anything else, Milady?”
She decided this was the day she would begin her search. “The castle is large, and I have not explored all its charms. My husband said you have been long in his service, Cerise. You must know the house well.”
The woman’s florid face gained more color. She had a sturdy build and looked older than Delia, but younger than Marthe. She bobbed her head. “Oh, yes, Milady. And my mother before me. This house has thirty-three rooms if you count the baths, although most are unused. The poor duke never had children. Such a pity.”
Delia sipped her tea. “Which room has a blue door?”
Cerise’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh no, you mustn’t. Any door but that one.”
The maid’s reaction intrigued her. “I am the duke’s wife, Cerise. For three months now. Surely I have access to the rooms of my own house.”
“Please.” Cerise backed away from the bed, her thick hands working at each other. “It’s the only place you cannot go. No one can. It’s bewitched. The others fell under its spell. All of them. Don’t ask me.” She ran from the room, slamming the door behind her.
Delia finished her breakfast and soaked in a warm, sudsy bath. When her skin turned a rosy pink, she wrapped herself in a thick robe and returned to the bedroom. For one born to poverty, she had adjusted well to her new life, she thought as she dressed. She was not ashamed to discover she liked luxury, and it pleased her to help her parents. Each week when she visited, she took coins from her household allowance so Luc could hire help in the fields and Marthe could buy what she needed.
Her fears about the duke proved unworthy. He treated her well. He explained the series of misfortunes that had befallen his previous wives. Delia found him so mild-mannered that she laughed at herself for entertaining ugly rumors. She felt from him a vague affection and an endearing dithering quality.
Delia decided that men were easier to manage than she supposed. No great love bloomed between them, but her life was better, and her dream-woman still delighted her at night. Still, the matter of the blue door lingered. Delia had to find it.
After she dressed and tied up her hair with a blue scarf, Delia set out. She discounted the ground floor which housed the kitchen and servants’ quarters. Also the entire first floor, with the Great Hall, with its carved oak doors. She started on the second floor where her bedchamber and Maltric’s suite shared a hall. She had walked the hall a hundred times, but to be certain, she walked its length again.
The blue door could be small, a closet or storage cabinet. She went into every room and searched but found nothing. She ventured into the unused hallways where her footsteps echoed and shadows taunted her. When she had checked every door, she climbed the stairs to the third floor. More oak doors. A white-painted one leading to a room that contained a dusty crib. Another with peeling pink paint she assumed had belonged to a child, perhaps one of Maltric’s sisters, now married and living in their own homes.
At the end of the third floor hall, a narrow door creaked open to reveal a spiral staircase that twisted its way to the top floor of the castle. Dust caked the steps. Cobwebs hung from the railing. She started up, testing each step before she put her weight on it. At the top, she came to another small door, black with grime. She put down her lamp and wrestled with the bolt before it snapped open with a sharp sound. She pushed at the door. It did not budge. Delia pressed her shoulder against it and shoved with all her strength. It creaked open, revealing a corridor with a low ceiling, shorter than those below, for the castle narrowed as it rose.
Holding her lamp high, Delia inched across creaking floorboards. She passed three doors, dark oak, their crevices caked with layers of dust. A spider scurried across her path and disappeared into a crack. A faint rustling in the walls could only be mice. With each step, more gloom settled over her. She scolded herself for being silly. Dust and spiders were harmless.
At the fourth door, she stopped. Its paint had cracked and peeled, the surface smeared with dirt as if water had dripped onto it from the ceiling. Filthy and not recently opened, but unmistakably blue, an indigo so dark it could grace the twilight sky. She willed her heart to slow.
A rusted key stuck out of the keyhole. Had those other wives stood here? Reached out and turned that key? Delia remembered the horror on Cerise’s face, but she was a frightened girl. Maltric had said nothing about this door, so why should she, the lady of the house, guide her behavior by the fears of a chambermaid?
Delia took a deep breath. With her lamp in her left hand, high enough that the light fell on the keyhole, she grasped the key with her right hand. Cold, rusty, stiff. She tried moving it to the right. It did not budge. She released it, took a tighter grasp and turned it to the left. With a loud, mechanical grate, the key moved. A click. Heat rose in her chest. She released the key, grasped the doorknob and pushed. The door opened, creaking so loudly she feared servants would come to investigate.
Darkness greeted her. She waited for her eyes to adjust, then edged inside. The door slammed shut. She whirled around, but she was alone. Dusty drapes covered the one window. Draped sheets covered outlines of furniture.
Bright light engulfed her. Delia blinked. She lifted one hand to shade her eyes.
You found me.
She stood in a large open space. Grass stretched to a distant horizon, spreading oak trees with thick trunks, blankets of wildflowers, the scent of roses. This was impossible. It had to be an illusion.
My world, came the answer. Welcome to Elysa.
From behind an ancient oak appeared a tall woman with hair as black as the stallions that pulled Maltric’s coach and skin like liquid caramel. Her silk gown, shades of pink from palest cherry blossom to deepest magenta, flowed around her as a waterfall on a spring day. From her ears dangled golden snakes. Her eyes glowed green.
“It’s you,” Delia breathed.
I am Atishi. Welcome to my world.
Delia stretched her arms above her head. She opened her eyes and kissed Atishi’s neck. They lay side by side on a cloak spread over thick grass. Atishi tasted of salt and lavender. “I loved you in my dreams and I love you now,” Delia murmured. “But I don’t understand.”
Atishi stroked Delia’s hand. “I called you.”
“In my dreams?”
“At other times too, but you listen best at night. I have watched you. It is a joy to have you here.”
Delia rested her face on Atishi’s shoulder. “How could this be? I opened a door in Maltric’s castle and now I’m in a different world.”
The beautiful woman from her dreams gazed at her with loving eyes. “For ages I have called. Now our worlds are close enough to open this door, but our time is limited. You must return to your world.”
Delia sat up. “Go back?”
“You cannot stay unless you are certain this is your place.”
“It must be,” Delia said. “I have loved you since I first dreamed of you.” She stopped and considered. “How did you draw me here?”
Atishi rose. Delia admired the long lean lines of Atishi’s body. Watching Atishi dress, she forgot her own clothes.
Atishi handed Delia the chemise she had ripped off in haste. “I drew you with my desire. There is no other way.”
Atishi wound her arm around Delia’s waist. “Think on what I have said. And return soon.”
Delia could not imagine failing to return. She kissed Atishi’s full lips. “I will.”
The forest shimmered and disappeared. One moment, Atishi was there. The next, Delia stood in a plain, bare room with heavy curtains blocking the light.
“Delia!” The duke’s voice rang sharp and cold. Delia looked up from her embroidery. He stood in the doorway, still wearing his traveling cloak and sword.
“Yes, my husband.” She dropped her needlework on the table and rose to greet him. “I am happy for your safe return. What can I get you?”
“The truth.” He did not open his arms for her embrace.
“You have searched through my castle, seeking evidence of my other wives, after I explained my history to you. What is this nonsense about a blue door?”
Delia forced herself to stay still. “My husband, I wanted to acquaint myself with my home. You said nothing about a forbidden room.”
He frowned so hard his thick eyebrows ran together. “No room is forbidden. Nor is there a blue door. Come. I will show you.”
Delia followed him up the stairs to the third floor and down the hallway. When they came to the door that led to the fourth floor, Delia demurred. “My husband, no one has opened that door for ages. So much dust.”
He looked at her with such cold eyes. She shivered. “If you are a witch, you could make it appear that way.” He kicked open the door, revealing the spiral staircase.
“I am no witch!” Delia cried, but he had started up the stairs. She followed as Maltric marched down the hall, turning his head from right to left as he inspected each door. Delia’s heart pounded, but when they came to the door that led to Atishi’s world, it was the same dark oak as the others, covered with layers of dust. She released her breath with an audible gust.
Maltric turned to her with a look of triumph. “No blue doors.”
“I see that, my husband. Whoever told you I sought a blue door did not speak the truth.”
“That is possible, I suppose.” He regarded her without a hint of warmth. “Are you unhappy with me, Delia? I thought you were content, but perhaps I was wrong. Do you regret our marriage?”
“Oh, no, my Lord.” She hoped he was not planning something dreadful. “I have been the victim of vicious gossip.”
His face softened. “It is possible you speak the truth. Let us go and dress. I have invited the mayor for dinner. Wear the green gown.”
Delia allowed him to take her arm and guide her back to her room. He left her there and went to his own chamber. Alone in her room, Delia collapsed on her bed. Cerise had betrayed her. Her husband thought her a witch. The blue door had vanished. What kind of magic had she blundered into?
Delia did not dream again of Atishi, but every night before she fell asleep, she recalled every detail of her face, and in her mind, she spoke to her. She never saw Cerise again. Another maid, Sara, attended to her needs. To this one, she said nothing beyond what she needed.
She performed her household duties, but developed a habit of sitting at her bedroom window to stare at the snow that had fallen thick on the land. Atishi and the land of Elysa were always on her mind, but sometimes Delia wondered if someone had bewitched her. Was there a blue door? Maltric might be more menacing than he appeared. The rumors of missing wives echoed. She had to be careful. Not upset him. But that meant she could spend her life as mistress of an empty castle, wedded to a man who did not cause her heart to flutter.
As midwinter approached, Maltric stayed home more often. Again, he behaved like the mild-mannered duke of their early days. Delia decided that her fears could be the overwrought ramblings of her own mind, but she had to be sure. She needed to discover who Maltric was.
One night as they shared the fire in his sitting room, Delia gathered her courage. “My husband, I cannot help pondering the wives who preceded me.”
Maltric looked up, toward the pair of matched swords that hung over the fireplace. Every fireplace in the castle displayed a pair of weapons, and these were his personal swords. “I have had back luck, my dear. With you, that has changed.”
“I don’t recall funeral rites for your wives.”
“That is not your affair.” Maltric rose. He loomed over her, his face dark with blood. “It is not your place to question me.” His voice sounded deeper than usual.
Delia shrank deeper into her chair. “I did not mean to doubt you, my husband.”
“You are not here to ask questions, but to please me.” He turned and faced the flames of the fireplace. “No harm will come if you keep your place and run my household to my satisfaction.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Delia suppressed her impulse to run from the room. She had angered her husband, perhaps with good reason. She thought of her parents, eased from the worse burdens of poverty. Her dreams were less important than her parent’s security. Best she forget them. Make peace with her lot. She had a comfortable home and servants to attend to her needs. Still, she longed for Atishi. Was she the witch? Or only a dream?
“I must speak to the cook about Sunday dinner,” Delia said. “If you recall, my parents are coming.”
He turned and smiled, the darkness gone from his face. “Of course.” His voice had returned to its usual register. “Your parents are always welcome. Go make arrangements for a fine meal.”
Delia went downstairs to find the cook. When she returned, the sitting room was empty and one of the swords from the fireplace was missing.
The next morning, Delia heard heavy footsteps in the hall. She opened her door and peered out. The gardener lumbered toward the stair to the upper floor, carrying a bucket of paint, a brush and a cloth.
She closed her door and rang for Sara. When the maid appeared, Delia asked her what gardener was doing.
“Why, painting, Milady,” Sara said. “The doors upstairs have cracked and the duke ordered them painted.”
The next day, Delia crept up the staircase for the first time since Maltric had accompanied her there. An unpleasant odor permeated the hallway, and the doors gleamed with fresh white paint. She held her breath as she approached the magical door that opened to Elysa. It too gleamed white. The key still protruded from the lock. It clicked open. She walked into the darkened room.
Oh, please, let the magic not be gone.
She closed the door and stood still. The room shimmered. A moment later, she stood in the bright meadow of Elysa.
“Atishi,” she called. “Are you here?”
From behind, Atishi clasped her waist with both hands, her laughter ringing like a bell. “I feared Maltric’s poor attempt to banish me had frightened you.”
Delia embraced her. “When he brought me here, the door looked the same as the others. He called me a witch.”
Atishi laughed. “You are not the witch in this castle. Is that why you stayed away?”
“He frightened me, and today he had the doors painted white. I feared it made a difference.”
Atishi laughed again. “Do you know how many times Maltric has painted that door? This entrance to Elysa existed long before this castle.” She kissed Delia. “I want to show you more of my world.”
They walked through the meadow on a path through a forest of oak and beech trees, well-spaced and heavy with foliage. Sunlight shone on them. The distant sound of running water made Delia realize she was thirsty.
Atishi guided her to the stream, a brook with deep pools and moss-covered banks. Delia knelt on the moss and drank. With her thirst quenched, she pulled Atishi onto the moss beside her. “This is a beautiful wood. Do wild beasts roam here?”
“The beasts are loving toward us, and we toward them. There is nothing to fear.”
Two young men, one blond and one dark-haired, both wearing tunics and breeches of light brown, appeared in a meadow on the other side of the stream. They held each other’s hands. When they saw Atishi and Delia, they waved.
“Atishi,” the blond man called. “Is this the human you sought? Your description did not do justice to her.”
“This is Delia’s second visit. It’s good to see you, Denys. How are you both?”
Denys grinned and kissed his companion. “Isadore and I are in excellent spirits. He has agreed to stay with me. We moved into a cottage in the village.”
Delia turned toward Atishi, who nodded. “Denys hunted Isadore, as I hunted you. There is a different castle for men, but it works just as Maltric’s room. A queen in a neighboring land has very poor luck with her husbands.” She smiled at the men, who were gazing into each other’s eyes, their hands clasped. “We must schedule the celebration to welcome you, Isadore.”
Denys tore his gaze from Isadore and made a quick bow to Atishi. “We will talk of it tonight. Perhaps a double celebration?” He raised his eyebrows and smiled at Delia.
“It’s too soon to speak of that,” Atishi said.
“But you have waited so long. I wish only for your happiness.”
Isadore pulled at Denys’ arm. “No one likes to be rushed, do they, Delia?” He vaulted the narrow stream and extended his hand, first to Atishi, then to Delia. “Come, Denys, let us walk with the ladies.”
Denys shrugged and leaped over the stream to join them.
Isadore took Delia’s arm. They walked along the trail, leaving Atishi and Denys in the meadow. He smiled at Delia, his dark eyes glowing. “Not long ago, I was like you, but as I learned about Elysa, I came to love it. It’s different from our land. I had doubts, but in the end, I could not refuse Denys. I hope you will join us.”
“What is different, beyond the great peace of this place?” Delia asked.
Isadore laughed. “Many things. I am still learning, for I crossed only a few days ago. We must learn many things before we can become full citizens in Elysa. We take lessons, but they are gentle. When I learn enough to live in Elysa, Denys and I will return to his home. I will have shed my fear of being worthy of such a grand place.” He laughed. “I hope.”
“Did it take you long to decide?” Delia asked.
Isadore squeezed her arm. “Months. My father is a noble, and I his only son. I was training to be a knight. Now it seems a hollow dream, but it was real to me, and more so to my father.”
“You have no regrets?”
Isadore smiled. “I love Denys. My memories of our ancient times together are returning. I’ve known him far longer than my family of birth, and we have much to do together, so no regrets.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Denys ran up behind them and threw an arm around Isadore’s neck. Isadore kissed his cheek.
“Come, Delia,” Atishi laughed. “These two are so besotted they cannot keep their hands to themselves. Go, gentlemen, and let me show our land to Delia.”
Isadore waved to Delia as Denys dragged him away. “I hope you come!” he shouted as they leaped back across the stream.
Delia watched them leave, arm in arm. “So Isadore is human?”
“Everyone here is human. Everyone in Elysa came from your side. This world is much like yours, but violence is rare and poverty unknown. Only those without hate in their hearts are admitted.”
Delia pondered. “This is the land called Fairy?”
Atishi took her hand. “Fairy is a different realm. For a different order of being. Elysa is for humans who love. All kinds of love are valued.”
“Are women who love men admitted?”
“All kinds of love,” Atishi said. “Fewer of them come, since they often find what they seek on your side, and, of course, they must be called.”
“Oh, my,” said Delia. “And you called me.”
Atishi kissed her so deeply that Delia squirmed with pleasure. “You are part of my soul. I have watched you since you were a child. Now you must make the choice to stay on your side or come live with me.”
“Can I return to visit my parents?”
“No, my dear. I’m sorry. The decision is final. Nor may you tell them about Elysa. Rumors fly. If unloving beings discovered another world so near yours, we could be overrun.”
“My parents would not tell,” Delia said, even as she remembered the difficulty Marthe had with secrets.
“This is an ancient world, Delia, which cannot always be reached from your side. Desire drives the joining of our worlds. When enough of us seek our lost companions, the worlds come close enough to open the old passageways. This is one of those times.” She kissed Delia’s cheek and sighed. “But you must be ready.”
“If I don’t come now, when would my next chance come?” Delia asked.
Atishi’s eyes glistened. “Not in your short lifetime, my love.”
They stopped at a clearing atop a hill. Below nestled a village of neat, well-kept cottages with thatched roofs. People walked along the streets, many with dogs and small horses that followed the humans without leash or rein.
“That is one of our towns,” Atishi said. “Where new inhabitants live while they shed the habits and desires of their old lives. Time must pass before even the most loving soul is ready for life in Elysa.”
Delia frowned. “Is that where Denys and Isadore live?”
“Yes. All who cross live there for a time.”
“What must I shed?”
Atishi embraced her. “The old ways. Jealousy. Fear of losing what you have. Anger without just cause. Lingering appetites that cannot be sated. I would stay with you until we could return to my home.”
“Where is that?”
“A lovely land near a great sea. I teach in the Temple of Life. If you decide to tell your stories, you would attract willing pupils eager to hear of your travels in the primitive world of your birth.”
Delia blushed. She had told no one that stories ran through her mind. She had toyed with putting them to paper, but it seemed too fanciful a way to pass the time.
“Here you could write your stories, or tell them, if you prefer. In Elysa, a storyteller is much esteemed.”
That thought was so overwhelming that Delia threw herself into Atishi’s arms. Atishi led her to a soft, shaded spot under a tree. They spread their cloaks on the grass. Sweet, deep kisses led to caresses that caused Delia to forget her fears. She pressed herself against Atishi and after a time they melted into each other.
Delia lost awareness of them as separate people. As Atishi stroked and kissed her, deep tones of pleasure vibrated every cell. As if from above, Delia saw their bodies transform into a single being with great blue-white wings that beat like waves in the air. We are one, she breathed and they both laughed that she had taken so long to remember.
Delia fell asleep in Atishi’s arms, still floating with the sensation of wings propelling her upward. When Atishi kissed her neck to rouse her, Delia resisted.
Atishi caressed Delia’s long red hair. “It’s time to go.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
“You must decide when you are calm and not swept away by our love.”
Delia could not resist one last embrace. Atishi held her fast. “Ponder what you have seen. I will be here.”
Atishi’s words faded. The forest shimmered and disappeared. Delia stood alone in a plain dark room.
From the hall, the door to Elysa was again indigo blue, dusty from disuse. Delia hurried back to the stair. The white paint had vanished. The doors looked as if no one had touched them for years.
Delia thought of little but Atishi. As she became engrossed in the preparations for the midwinter celebration, memories of Atishi’s voice, her laugh and her sweet scent lingered in Delia’s mind. Her memories warmed her as the castle grew more frigid and snowdrifts blocked the lower windows. Atishi was her great love. Beside her, Maltric paled to a gray fog, but leaving her parents made her sad. If she stayed with Atishi, they would think Maltric killed her. The rumors of his murdering ways would spread.
When the round of midwinter parties passed, and the noble visitors returned to their own homes, the castle settled into its routine. Delia waited until Maltric left on a hunting trip before she returned to the blue door. She found Atishi waiting. They fell into each other’s arms.
“I missed you so,” Delia whispered against Atishi’s neck.
“Hush,” Atishi said and covered Delia’s mouth with her own.
In Atishi’s arms, Delia melted into the grass, losing her sense of limbs or skin or eyes. She pulsed with the sensations of heat, melting, union.
When they separated, Delia curled against her love, her hair fanned over Atishi’s caramel skin. She was almost asleep when Atishi whispered, “Delia, you must decide. Your time is up.”
Delia raised her head. “It is?”
“This passageway will soon close.”
“You have one day to decide.”
“I cannot lose you. I love you.”
“And I love you. But for us to be together, you must renounce your world.”
“This is a test?”
“Those who govern Elysa place the guardians at the openings. They require commitment to our ways.”
Delia swallowed. “I worry for my parents. How can I let them think Maltric killed me? She considered again those who had preceded her. “Did Maltric’s other wives choose Elysa?”
“Four of my sisters called Maltric’s wives. Now is my turn.”
Tears burned Delia’s eyes. “I cannot lose you. And I cannot tell them.”
They wandered through the forest, holding onto each other, but Delia’s heart weighed heavy in her chest. She left Atishi with a final kiss and a promise to return with her decision.
In her bedroom in the castle, she sat by the window watching the day fade. Night came and still she sat. When Sara knocked to ask if she wanted the evening meal, Delia told her to leave it at the door. Late that night, she placed the untouched tray outside the door.
The next morning, Delia rose early. After a quick bath, she sat at her writing table. She had finished the second letter when horsemen rode into the courtyard. Two sheets of pale lavender paper covered with her neat handwriting lay on the desk. She folded them and sealed them with the duke’s seal. When Maltric knocked on the door, she stood to greet him.
“Hello, Delia.” He kissed her cheek. “How have you gotten on in my absence?”
Delia wore a simple pale blue gown of fine wool that hung in loose folds. The mirror told her she looked lovely and Maltric’s face reflected her judgment.
She said, “I am well, but troubled.”
“What troubles you, my wife?”
“You know, don’t you?”
He shuffled his feet. “What do you mean, my dear?”
“You know what’s behind the blue door that cannot be painted over. Where your wives went. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“Well, you . . . it’s hard to explain, in simple terms. You see, I . . .” His face reddened, then paled.
She tapped her foot on the polished oak floor. “Tell me, Maltric. What is your role in this?”
“You’re leaving me, then?”
“That is why we are conversing. I have been to Elysa. I have met the one who called me. Now I am asking if you are the guardian Atishi mentioned.”
His eyes widened. He choked and coughed. She felt a tug of sympathy for him.
“I truly cared for you.” He stared at the floor. “I had hoped we might have more time together. But . . . it is my job, you understand.”
“Your job is to marry women called to Elysa?”
His lips thinned and twitched. “Someone must do it. I am ambassador to your world.”
“But everyone thinks you’re a murderer. Don’t you care?”
His eyes glistened. “It’s not an easy job. Without bodies . . . well, it becomes a mystery, you see. And I am the duke. That makes it easier. The people will tell stories about me for years to come. I thought I wanted that. It’s why I volunteered to come back, for I, too, was called to Elysa long ago. I didn’t realize how bad the stories would be, for this is a different time than the one I remember. Far harsher.” He shivered. “But there is a greater good. I keep that in mind.”
It was the most honest thing he had ever said. Delia reached for him; he embraced her, and they clung to each other with less awkwardness than usual.
“What happened to Cerise?”
Maltric cleared his throat. “She went to visit her parents. She will return when you are gone.”
“Why did you accuse me of being a witch?”
“Ah . . . well, my dear, there are rules. Maybe not rules, but conventions, you might say. Only those with pure hearts can travel to Elysa. Part of my job is to . . . to dissuade the candidate, to ensure their desire to leave is genuine.”
“So you tested me?”
He looked so miserable that Delia wished she had phrased her question more delicately. “It’s part of my duty. You understand.”
“No,” she said, “but perhaps later I will.”
“You are leaving then?”
“I cannot turn from my fate.” She handed him one of the sealed envelopes. “Will you take this to my parents? It doesn’t reveal your secret, but tells them I’ve gone away, am in good health and happy. It instructs them to say nothing to anyone. Even you.”
He nodded. “Sensible. I will deliver it myself.”
“Also, I want you to grant them a pension.”
“You can depend on it.” He put the message in his pocket.
She handed him the second envelope. “This is for my brother. He is with the King’s Royal Archers. Can you arrange for its delivery?”
He took the second envelope. “Be at ease, my dear, I will make certain to take care of your family. I have enjoyed having you for my wife. I hope you will be happy.”
She considered Maltric. “Who gave you this job?”
Maltric shuffled his feet. “Well, that is not . . . I am not at liberty to divulge their identities. At some point, you will meet them.”
“Of course,” Delia said.
He looked relieved. “You do understand. Thank you, Delia. Goodbye, then.” He kissed her cheek and left her.
The door had barely closed when the clatter of another horse’s hooves sounded on the cobblestones below. She glanced out the window. Her brother, arrayed in the bright crimson and gold of the king’s livery, dismounted from a fine bay. His footsteps sounded heavy in the hall, then on the stairs. He knocked twice and flung the door open.
“Rob!” She ran to embrace him. “You are in time to bid me farewell. I wrote you a letter. Maltric has it. Did you see him?”
Rob pressed her against his chest and kissed the top of her head. “That swine,” he growled. “I passed him on the stair. I should have tossed him down it on his head. Those rumors of murdered wives are true! I heard it from the cousin of one who disappeared. He is a foot soldier in my regiment and an honest man. When I heard his story, I rode here as fast as I could. I’m taking you home, Delia.”
“No! No, Rob, you don’t understand.”
“I do understand.” His dark eyes blazed, mouth clenched white. “I’m taking you home. Then with me to the palace. The queen needs a Lady-in-Waiting, and you are perfect for the position. A year wouldn’t pass before you found a husband among the nobles.”
“Rob, stop. Listen!”
Rob dragged Delia out of the room and along the hall. She grabbed onto the railing at the top of the stair and dug in her heels. “Stop it, Rob! Things are not as they seem.”
“That’s what I’m saying, sister. This castle is very fine, and you are dressed like a lady, but there’s danger. Your very life! I’ve come to save you.”
From the bottom of the stairs, the duke’s voice boomed. “Delia does not need saving.” It was the voice he had used when he accused Delia of being a witch. Despite herself, she cringed.
Rob released her arm and faced the duke. Before the duke’s head appeared in the stairwell, his shining sword rose, pointed at Rob’s face. Rob retreated. The duke’s sword whipped the air. As Maltric stepped into the hall, he growled a challenge and pointed the sword at Rob’s chest. Rob’s back hit the wall. His hand gripped the pommel of his own sword.
“Do not draw unless you wish to die,” Maltric hissed. “It is you who misunderstands. Your sister follows her heart. I am her champion—and a master swordsman. I will run you through if you persist in this unworthy disruption of her intention. Now stand still and listen to your sister.” He glanced at Delia and gave a quick nod.
She faced her brother. “My husband speaks the truth. I married him to save our parents the cost of my keep, it is true, but we have reached an understanding. Despite his reputation, Maltric is not evil. With his blessing, I’ve chosen another path, one I cannot divulge. Maltric holds the letters I wrote you. I must leave and I won’t return, but that is no cause for grief. Maltric understands. I hope you will, too.”
“But, Delia.” Rob looked young and confused.
“I act for love, Rob,” Delia said.
“Love of what?”
He looked so perplexed she almost laughed. “Not everything can be spoken of openly. You must have learned that in the king’s service. Go to our parents. In my letters, I say I have left the realm, but am safe and in good hands. It is true, even though I cannot reveal where. I need your silence. Can you trust me enough to do my bidding, Rob?”
Rob eyed the sword pointing at his chest. “I don’t understand.”
Maltric’s sword inched forward, flicked a brass button on Rob’s uniform.
“You need only agree to abide by your sister’s wishes.”
Rob stared at the sword point. “How can I know she speaks freely? Have you coerced her too with your sword?”
“Rob!” Delia stepped closer to Maltric. “Do I look coerced? Answer me!”
He met her eyes. The fear drained from his face.
“You have always protected me, Rob, but now I make my own decisions. I choose this. Look at me. Do I lie?”
He blinked twice and exhaled. “No.”
Rob looked relieved, but still on guard. “I will do as you ask, sister. I don’t understand this, but I’ve never seen you look happier.”
She went to him, pushed away the sword, and kissed her brother’s cheek. “I love you, brother. Tell Marthe and Luc I love them.” She turned to Maltric. He lowered his sword. “You, my husband, have the blessings of my heart.”
Maltric sheathed his sword and embraced her. “Goodbye, Delia. You have been dear to me.” He kissed her forehead.
“And you to me.”
She turned and strode down the hall to the spiral stair that led to the top floor of the castle. Before she entered the stairwell, she turned. Her brother and husband stood side by side, one confused, both sad.
Delia smoothed her dress and tossed back her hair. Then she walked firmly, with purpose, through the door and up the stairs. She pushed open the door at the top and ran to the blue door. There she stopped to catch her breath. She would not greet Atishi panting like a charwoman. When she had composed herself, she raised her chin, twisted the key in the lock and thrust open the door.
Atishi stood under the towering oak adorned in a gown of green silk that swayed in the gentle breeze. “Beloved.”
Delia walked into her arms.
Behind her the blue door clicked shut.